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Flights of fancy - Part I

How early novelists inspired spaceflight

Martin Griffiths 16 September 2007

Trailblazing: detail from the cover of Donald A. Wollheim's space novel

The birth of the machine
was to provide writers with the raw materials to extrapolate to a future based on science and technology rather than fantasy

Editor’s note: Although science and scientists can be useful elements of stories, whether science fiction or ‘lab lit’, the reverse can also be true. Here, in the first of three installments, astronomer Martin Griffiths explores how the imagination of early novelists set the stage to help pioneering scientists towards the goal of real-life spaceflight.

Fantastic stories of the past dealt with the human exploration of space merely as an extraordinary aside to the satirical or derisive commentaries on the politics and societal structure of the time. However, by the mid to latter 19th century, spaceflight using technology, theory and imagination became a distinct possibility. The novels of Verne, Lasswitz, Wells, Tsiolkovskii and others eventually led to the dream of ages becoming a reality. The fiction of Tsiolkovskii became the fact of the space age. How did such fiction influence the pioneers of spaceflight and what effects did this have on British fervour?

Flights of fancy

Flying through space and visiting the stars or other worlds would appear at first glance to be a recent idea in literature merely because such voyages have become part of the history and folk lore of the 20th century. However, the “fantastic voyage” is one of the oldest literary forms, and still remains one of the basic frameworks for the casting of science fiction. Although the term “science fiction” (SF) is a modern construct, its parentage is evident from such fantastic voyages. A history of space flight by various means is contained within these works, most of which never aspired to take man beyond the realm of the moon. Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), for instance, engaged its protagonist in a flight to the moon via spiritual means; he was taken there by a demon whilst in a trance. The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin (1638) not only had his hero being taken to the moon by flocks of birds but also revealed a predilection for authority figures to provide and enjoy a little escapism, Godwin being both a bishop and the brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell. The French writer Cyrano de Bergerac’s Other Worlds (1657) engaged the reader in a scientific experiment – dew evaporates into the air at sunrise, therefore the hero straps bags of dew to his body in order to arise from the Earth and journey to the moon under the warming influence of the sun. Even as late as 1827, the fantastic tradition had not died out as can be seen from Joseph Atterley’s fantasy A Voyage to the Moon, in which spaceflight features, albeit without any mechanical means (Clute & Nicholls 1979:209).

Interesting though these tales are, however, they could hardly divulge a level of technological sophistication. The birth of the machine during the industrial revolution was to provide later writers with the raw materials to fabricate new realms for the imagination, an extrapolation to a future based on science and technology rather than fantasy.

Early SF and spaceflight possibilities

Science fiction is a modernized rubric given to a particular genre built upon these traditions: imaginary accounts that attempt, in a broad sense, to portray man in fantastic settings. A contemporary work would augment such narratives by extrapolating current scientific trends or technology to a near future. During the 19th century, such tales were evolving, drawing upon the knowledge and technical applications of the machine age, beginning to reveal a latent power that inspired many space pioneers. The descendants of these novels continue to do so right up to the present.

One of the foremost of these visionary pioneers was the Frenchman Jules Verne. Deserving of the appellation “the father of science fiction”, Verne single-handedly invented the age of wonder based upon the technological progression of the machine age. His works, primarily the “Voyages Extraordinaires”, attempted to show the effects of science and technology on society and how such technology would lead society into a golden age of exploration unparalleled by any adventure to that time. His 1862 novel Five Weeks in a Balloon revealed him as an author of scientific insight possessing a meticulous attention to technological detail whilst maintaining and emphasizing the sense of wonder and awe fomented by the application of technology. For a writer as visionary as Verne, machines and materials did not simply snap into being at the command of the author’s imagination; Verne’s stories relied on extant scientific knowledge, forging new materials for a not too distant future from the tools of his time (Lottman 1996:xiv). His intelligent application found fertile ground in the 1865 classic From the Earth to the Moon, one of the first attempts of SF to marry existing technology with the outward urge of exploration with one that would become a driving force for many rocket pioneers. Around the Moon in 1897 put the icing on the cake by predicting “splashdown” on return of the lunar pioneers.

During the next few years, Verne’s inspiration bred a number of stories dealing with an increasingly popular theme – escaping the bounds of gravity and reaching space. One of the earliest stories to suggest a space habitat was Edward Everett Hale’s story The Brick Moon (1869). Published in four parts, starting in the October 1869 Atlantic Monthly, it proved to be so popular amongst the readership that by 1870 he published the sequel Life in the Brick Moon. Hale was a singular character who may have justified his SF “escapism” due to the social circumstances of his time. He was a well-known Unitarian preacher and abolitionist, and the author of a number of important literary works before his foray into SF. He was responsible for writing some of the earliest utopian and alternative history fiction, including the classic The Man without a Country and Other Tales (1857), clear evidence of his dissatisfaction with the political state and structure of society surrounding him (Rabkin 1983:193). This ideology has often been a reflection within quality works of science fiction, many of which masquerade as effective social criticism or satire, enabling the reader to imagine other worlds, perhaps beyond the bounds of the petty squabbles of Earth. Life in the Brick Moon contains a longing for change, an escape from the stifling absurdities and inhuman acts of our fellow man, a change that may pass with man’s invasion of the heavens.

A decade later Percy Gregg’s Across the Zodiac (1890) contained some of the most vivid images of spaceflight to date with the invention of a ship powered by “apergy”, a negative form of energy, which then travels through the solar system visiting the planets, including an inhabited Mars. Recently, such negative energy has been envisioned as opening wormholes in space-time, allowing instantaneous passage across space for future travellers – once the engineering catches up with the imagination. Another almost prophetic space tale was that of Robert Crombie, published the same year as Gregg’s story. A Plunge into Space contained a ship which was an almost perfect spheroid, a shape which would later make its appearance as the first artificial moon “Sputnik” and the first manned capsules Vostok and Voshkhod.

One of the most important of these early SF pioneers is undoubtedly Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Revered as the “father of space rocketry”, Tsiolkovsky laid out his plans in fantastic stories which detailed his visualization of travel in space. Tsiolkovsky published his first science fiction story On the Moon in a Moscow magazine in 1892, and had written the script for Free Space as early as 1883. This seminal work later became the foundation of modern technical rocketry, the Exploration of World Space by Reactive Vehicles published in 1903. By 1895 the story Dreams of the Earth and the Sky and the Effects of Universal Gravitation described an artificial satellite, a predecessor to Sputnik. With revolution in the air, it became inevitable that political and scientific approbation would be reflected against all things that shackled mankind, including those of the natural world (Burrows 1998:25).

According to William Simms Bainbridge, Russia’s scientific and artistic achievements benefited from certain advantages of backwardness. Backwardness, he claimed, spares the mind from filling with nuts-and-bolts considerations. It frees thinkers from the saddle of current styles and technologies and from reluctance to scrap existing machinery that doesn’t exist. It enables potential creators to seize on the very latest from more advanced countries. Most importantly, it promotes dreaming (Bainbridge 1979:182). However, to call late 19th-century Russia backward in the sciences would be misleading; exceptional achievements in physics, mathematics and chemistry were then being made, including chemist Dmitri Mendeleev's 1870 plotting of the all-important periodic table of elements.

The revolutionary theme continued through 1895 when A. N. Goncharov also published a satellite story Fantasies of Earth and Sky in the same Moscow magazine, followed a few years later by Alex Bogdanov’s Red Star, detailing a communist utopia on Mars. Such ideas would require men with the vision and ingenuity to carry them out, and Russia was not lacking in these creative thinkers (Burrows 1998:42).

If man was dreaming of invading space and conquering the planets, there were also men who thought of such invasions inversely. Such themes were hardly original; Washington Irvine used a metaphorical invasion of New York by Moon men in a novella in 1809 that satirised the tough city (Franklin 1966:251). In the context of space travel however, the invasion theme held the implicit (and sometimes explicit) methods of travelling through space.

On Two Planets by Kurd Lasswitz, first published in 1897, laid the structure for many an alien encounter thereafter and heralded an entire sub-genre within science fiction itself. The human protagonists (Saltner and Grunthe) meet Martians (“Nume”) who have colonized Earth's North and South Poles. Foreboding is in the air as misunderstandings occur over differences in language and culture, but these are finally overcome due to the inherent similarities between the civilization on the “two planets” and the obvious humanoid appearance of the Martians. Saltner saves and falls in love with the female Martian “La”, thus saving the day for Earth (Lasswitz 1897:134). The idea of space travel is of course implicit within the work, yet this novel, ahead of its time in several ways, made little impact on the English-speaking science fiction world. It did, however, later inspire Germans such as Werner Von Braun, who played a crucial role in the development of modern rocket technology. The book led to even more infamous planetary encounters the following year when the doyen of British 19th century SF writers, H. G. Wells penned The War of the Worlds.

This, the ultimate invasion novel, with its terrifying account of the Martians as superior beings decimating the human population, has since become a classic of the genre. However, the work did not dwell overall on the method of transportation, apart from a few references to “green and crimson flares spurting from the planet” (Wells 1898:5) which infers a gun-type mechanism similar to that imagined in Verne’s novels. Apart from Verne, it seemed, no writers were willing to extrapolate current technological trends to enable the exploration of space or other planets of the solar system, although plenty of writers were willing to contemplate the effects of meeting aliens, enabling such luminaries to imagine alien societies and compare them and their philosophies to those of Earth. An example of this genre is Edward Bellamy’s short story The Blindman’s World, published in the November 1886 Atlantic Monthly. Bellamy’s tale utilizes the same methodology of travel, whether through time or space which can later be found in his 1888 magnum opus Looking Backward – the trance or deep sleep. In The Blindman’s World, an astronomer travels to Mars in a dream and exchanges all kinds of cultural insights and philosophical nuances as a method of identifying human intelligence and consciousness, pondering the superiority or not of man’s achievements across a wide range of disciplines (Franklin 1966:261). Dreaming one’s way through space hardly qualifies as space travel in a modern sense however, but the comparisons of planetary civilization and ideologies kept the expectations of space travel alive.

These early fantastic images were topped by George Griffith’s truly awful A Honeymoon in Space written in 1901. At a time when resolute technicians were attempting to turn the literary future of Verne and Tsiolkovsky into a working reality, Griffith’s contention of a “repulsive” antigravitic force, almost in a Wellsian tradition (following the “cavorite” of Wells’ First Men in the Moon) takes his young lovers off to Venus in their spaceship Astronef on the adventure of their lives, meeting angel-like aliens (of an inferior intelligence of course), breathing in the air, drinking the water and eating the fruits of their new-found paradise. This account seemed anachronistic in an age when individuals such as Tsiolkovsky and his collaborator Friedrik Tsander were laying the foundations for the use of airlocks and spacesuits against the harsh conditions in space or planetary surfaces – ideas fostered not only from their imagination, but grounded in contemporary astrophysical science. Griffith’s world could rightly be considered the last unadulterated fantasy; the fiction of Tsiolkovsky set the tone for the facts to come (Aldiss & Harrison 1971:33).

Taken together, it seems clear that science fiction would become a motivating factor behind mankind’s restless attempts on space. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was not only a great writer but a cunning physicist and mathematician who would turn his dreams into reality. By the time of his death in 1937, he had witnessed the first launch of American, German and Russian rockets to ever increasing heights. His aspirations were becoming an inevitability.

Next week: the influence of fiction on rocket pioneers

References for all three parts of this series

Aldiss, B & Harrison, H: Farewell Fantastic Venus!, Panther, London: 1971.

American Astronautical Society History Series History of Rocketry and Astronautics, Conference proceedings, Lausanne, Switzerland:1984.

Bainbridge, WS: The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, Wiley InterScience, New York:1976.

Baker, D: Conquest: A History of Space Achievements from Science Fiction to the Shuttle. Windward, England: 1984.

Burgess, E: Rocket Propulsion, Chapman & Hall, London: 1954.

Burgess, E: Satellites & Space Flight, Scientific Book Club, London: 1959.

Burgess, E: The Smaller British Societies Devoted to Astronautics and Interplanetary Flight , p. 73.

Burrows, W: This New Ocean – A History of the First Space Age, Random House, New York: 1998.

Carter, PA: The Creation of Tomorrow – Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, New York: 1972.

Clarke, AC: The View From Serendip, Fontana, London: 1978.

Clarke, AC: Profiles of the Future, Granada, London: 1983.

Clute, J & Nicholls, P: The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Granada, London: 1979.

Franklin, BH: Future Perfect – American Science Fiction of the 19th Century, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey: 1966.

Goddard, RH: The Papers of Robert Hutchins Goddard, McGraw-Hill, New York: 1970. Hill, CN: A Vertical Empire – The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme 1950-1971, Imperial College Press, London: 2001.

Lasswitz, K: Two Planets; published in German under the original title Auf Zwei Planeten Verlag B Elischer Nachfolger, Leipzig: 1897.

Lethbridge, C: History of Rocketry, Spaceline Inc., Cape Canaveral: 2000.

Lottman, H: Jules Verne, St, Martins Press, New York: 1996.

Mikhailov, VP, The Contributions of K. E. Tsiolkovsky and Other Native Scientists to the Technology of Rocket Launching, p.67.

Moskowitz, S: Olaf Stapledon – The Man Behind the Works, Random House, New York: 1977.

Rabkin, E: Science Fiction – An Historical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1983.

Rauschenbach, BV: Hermann Oberth: The Father of Space Flight 189-1989, West Art Publishing, New York: 1994.

Stapledon, O: Last & First Men ,Methuen, London: 1931.

Tsiolkovsky, K: The Science Fiction of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, University of the Pacific Press, Seattle: 1979.